The UK’s most surprising new tech hub

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Norfolk: the UK’s most surprising new tech hub – “Silicon Broads”?

Wednesday night, and a 350-strong crowd of students, software developers, tech programmers and business people alike bustled into the city’s trendy former banking hall, gravitating towards the sponsored bar. Many on their fifth or sixth local tech conference this year and second drink of the evening, the notably enthused crowd were there this time to listen to the man of the moment, keynote speaker and much adored TechCrunch editor and taste-maker, Mike Butcher.

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Shoreditch? No, Norwich.

Remarkable? Not really.

TechCrunch visits Norwich, one of multiple local tech conference events this year, was instigated by the city’s thriving local technology and start-up network SyncNorwich. Boasting nearly 800 members, SyncNorwich acts as a real-life example of Butcher’s talk on the night about the power of local start-ups and tech communities to disrupt the status quo.

The once sleepy and provincial market town now plays home to a vibrant collection of tech companies, highlighted by a cursory glance at just one twitter list of Norfolk “Innovation and Tech start-ups”. Listing 157 members, it’s almost on par with Silicon Roundabout, and still expanding.

Not bad for a town in a county once so maligned for its nescience that doctors used the note “NFN” on their slower patients’ charts – “Normal for Norfolk”.

Nor is it bad for a tech community that, up until 2 years ago, didn’t exist at all. Set up by 5 co-founders in 2011, most had moved to Norwich for personal or work reasons. They soon discovered that there were far more tech opportunities and surprising local advantages than they’d ever expected.

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Drawn by cheaper provincial rents and fuelled by new graduates from the University of East Anglia, Norwich is rapidly becoming one of the UK’s most surprising tech hubs. And this once sleepy and provincial market town is producing some impressive results.

FXHOME, a Norwich-based video production company, provides low-cost, high quality visual effects software that is a favourite with amateur and pro video producers alike. Their affordable video effects product “Hitfilm” is used everywhere from YouTube and amateur film-school videos to post-production in Hollywood movies like Salt or The Hangover II. (Their effects are prominently featured in the scene in which Zach Galifianakis accidentally shoots up a Bangkok strip club with an assault rifle.)

Liftshare, meanwhile, is the largest car-sharing network in the UK and has the highest density of users of any car-sharing network anywhere in the world – on average there is one user on every street in the UK.

Proxama provides NFC marketing campaigns, payments and even virtual loyalty cards, effectively eliminating the need for QR codes or old-fashioned cards in one’s wallet in favour of a smoother process.

Wordwides, on the other hand, is an app designed, coded and built by 16 year old school pupil Michael Niman. Inspired by the movie “The Social Network”, he saw the film and checked some books about coding out of the public library the very next day. He’s now encouraging his younger brother to learn how to code.

MarketMeSuite is another tech success story to hail prominently from Norwich – although they had to move all the way to Massachusetts to secure funding.

And SupaPass advances a model of direct fan patronage that could well save the music industry from its slow, piracy-induced death.

That’s not even to mention the assorted tech genius of Haberdash, Pingle, RainBird AI, Sessioncam, 99squared, Photocrowd, 3sixty, Blurtit, Zealify – all Norwich-based companies featured at the conference some of which have previously appeared anywhere from local papers to the front page of Apple’s iTunes store.

Norwich’s secret weapon, in many ways, is its proximity to the University of East Anglia which provides a steady flow of talent to local tech businesses through:

  • Pioneering computing courses in Artificial Intelligence, a field particularly complementary to some local companies, like RainBird AI.
  • Norwich Business School, who co-ran the event and count one of SyncNorwich’s founders amongst its professors.
  • An internship system wherein local tech SMEs can offer positions to keen UEA students.

Many local tech companies such as Zealify are founded and, in some cases, entirely staffed by UEA graduates.

Just looking at Norwich shows there’s little doubt that the democratising nature of the Cloud really has changed the game. The new found importance of tech communities and democratisation of technological innovation means that radical tech hubs can suddenly pop up almost anywhere with enough Internet connections and enough people; in places where just 5 years earlier this same prospect would have been unthinkable.

Business and software enterprises, from amateur apps to websites as game changing as Google, really can be started inside spare bedrooms. And it’s true that if you gather together a critical mass of tech geeks, despite their avowed asociality, things do start to happen. After all, just one tweet was enough to draw TechCrunch editor Mike Butcher into the city. (And it takes less time, as he pointed out, to drive all the way from London to Norwich than it does to drive across California’s Silicon Valley.)

In many ways, the SyncNorwich TechCrunch event was evidence of all the things that Mike was talking about. Back in the conference hall, the famously gregarious tech guru was firing on all cylinders, with imagined possibilities filling the room.

“Have a hackathon!” he enthused, “Yeah, you can get together, solve your problems! Get some developers together! Grab a load of Red Bull! Problem solved! Get one going here!”

There was equal frisson when Mike recalled how the expanding number of tech businesses in Silicon Valley had helped connections to happen naturally – how you could suddenly run into a web developer who’d be perfect for you at the local ATM, or grab coffee with someone working on a similar project.

It was this same phenomenon that the attendees of the Norwich event clearly recognised. In fact, they were living proof of it. It was the same “expansion through connection” that was now happening in formerly disconnected, and still decentralised, hubs all over the UK.

And it’s a trend for the savvy tech-observers to watch. Norwich, strange as it may seem, is no longer a million miles away from Silicon Roundabout or even the early days of Silicon Valley itself. Silicon Broads? It’s not as far-fetched as it once seemed.

This apparently “disconnected backwater” is aiming to connect.

Words: Lucy Morris (@xargirl)

Images: Tim Stephenson (@TimStephenson)

 

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